By Gail Radtke
In a previous article I wrote about how my dog, Lanie, became a St. John Ambulance (SJA) therapy dog in British Columbia, Canada (see The Miracle Mutt, BARKS from the Guild, October 2014, pp. 36-39).
Lanie was a year old at the time and had a beautiful, friendly temperament. A friend suggested that we apply to the SJA program and I thought it would be the perfect outlet for her natural abilities. Although Lanie and I had already done a great deal of obedience training at that point, I wanted to make sure she was well-prepared for the SJA evaluation and, and, assuming were we successful, for our visits to senior facilities.
Desensitization to Novel Equipment
I started introducing her to novel equipment items such as wheelchairs, assistance walkers and crutches to begin to desensitize her to them. To create a positive association I brought in a high-value food item that I knew she loved, cheese.
The concept was: Lanie looks at the wheelchair, Lanie gets a piece of cheese.
In this manner we were gradually able to get closer to each individual object. We slowly worked our way up to being right beside it and then touching it.
The next step was for me to sit in the wheelchair and interact with Lanie and then move in the wheelchair with her trotting alongside me without a care in the world (except for, “Where’s my cheese?”). This is the type of preparation I would recommend for anyone who wants to get their dog involved in therapy dog work.
Exposure to Crowds
Exposure to crowds and being touched by unknown people can be stressful for dogs but, if we pair the experience with something of high value to the dog, such as Lanie’s cheese, we can slowly desensitize them and teach them to remain calm in the most chaotic environments.
Most therapy dog work is in senior facilities and hospitals. By re-creating elements of the physical environment dogs will experience during their visits prior to actually being in a facility, we can help them feel calmer and more confident about how to react during the new encounter.
The SJA Therapy Dog program I am involved with has several branches throughout the province of British Columbia. Our specific location incorporates Abbotsford and Mission and currently there are 36 handler teams (consisting of the volunteer and their dog) in this area.
In 2014, our branch area volunteered a total of 3,478.5 hours, and, in the entire province, therapy dog teams volunteered an impressive total of 34,121 hours throughout the year. The teams mainly visit retirement homes, hospitals and hospices.
Child-Dog Reading Program
The Abbotsford/Mission branch also operates the PAWS 4 Stories reading program, which aims to improve the reading skills of children by having the child read to the dog. Our branch currently has the PAWS 4 Stories program in eight schools.
Several times a year our volunteer teams also visit the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia during exam time. This enables students to take a break from the stress of exams and studying to spend time interacting with the therapy dogs and their handlers.
The other unique program our teams are involved in is visiting the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women (ACCW) in Maple Ridge, British Columbia (see also The Miracle Mutt and Endless Possibilities, BARKS from the Guild, May 2015, pp. 43-45).
The diverse programs SJA has in place gives both handlers and dogs the opportunity to experience different environments and interact with people from all age groups and walks of life.
To become a therapy dog team, one must complete a series of steps such as a criminal records check, a suitability interview and an orientation to the program. Once the volunteer has been established into the program, it is the dog’s turn. Dogs need to be at least two years old, in good health and be able to successfully complete a behavioral testing evaluation.
Temperament and Social Skills
Although obedience skills are wonderful to have, it is not about who has a great sit and stay. Instead, a calm temperament and social skills are the proven winners.
Dogs must be accepting of a friendly stranger, sit calmly for petting and handling, and be non-reactive around other dogs and noisy distractions. The dogs are put through a series of stressful re-enactments to ensure they do not startle or become distressed, and that they are able to remain calm.
One key factor is that the dogs must really enjoy being physically handled by all different kinds of people. To qualify for the PAWS 4 Stories program, volunteers must first be an established therapy dog team with a minimum of 10 visits at another facility. They can then apply to take part in the Children’s Test Evaluation and, if successful at that level, can move into the program.
Therapy Dog vs. Service Dog
In Canada and the United States there are many therapy dog programs whereby interested parties can get involved and volunteer in their community. The American Kennel Club has an extensive list of organizations in North America for anyone interested in learning more.
It is important to know the difference between a therapy dog and a service dog and understand the respective laws and regulations. A therapy dog is a pet dog and does not have the same broad access as a certified service animal to accompany their person in public areas, airplanes, restaurants or indeed wherever else a certified assistance/service dog has full access to go.
There is often a misunderstanding that therapy dogs can accompany their persons in the same manner as service dogs but, unfortunately, this is not the case. The fact that problems have occurred with people trying to gain privileged access with their pet dogs has instigated a call for a clarification in British Columbia’s laws under the Guide and Assistance Dog Act (see Guide Dog and Service Dog Act Changes Target Fraudulent Pooches).
As a certified trainer and an evaluator in training for SJA therapy dogs, I have had to explain the differences between the two countless times and take it as my responsibility to share this information. It is not ill-intentioned when someone calls and says they want their dog to qualify as a therapy dog so they can take him to work with them. There is often, however, a misinterpretation regarding the difference between the roles and the laws and regulations.
My dog Lanie was an SJA therapy dog since 2011 but has now retired from duty due to health issues from knee surgery in 2013. Although the surgery went well and she gained back her mobility, there are days when I can tell she is not her bright and playful self. I would never want to risk her reacting poorly to being touched in her knee area.
My other dog Tawny Mae was also a certified therapy dog with SJA and was there with me when we established the prison program at ACCW. Sadly, Tawny Mae passed away suddenly in March this year. Her legacy now lives on in the newest member of our family, Gertie Mae, who, just like her, is an Australian cattle dog red heeler. My goal is for Gertie Mae to step into Tawny Mae’s role when she is old enough to be evaluated as a therapy dog.
At almost 16 weeks old, Gertie Mae has already visited the prison program on multiple occasions. The ongoing exposure to the physical environment and the people will make an enormous difference for her when the time comes for to undergo the evaluation process. During one visit she was able to meet over 75 people as we moved around different areas of the facility.
Such experiences will be invaluable in preparing Gertie Mae for her future role.
American Kennel Club. (2021). AKC Recognized Therapy Dog Programs
BC Laws. (2021). The Guide Dog and Service Dog Act
McQuigge, M. (2015). Guide Dog and Service Dog Act Changes Target Fraudulent Pooches
Radtke, G. (2014, October). The Miracle Mutt. BARKS from the Guild, pp. 36-39
Radtke, G. (2015, May). Endless Possibilities. BARKS from the Guild, pp. 43-45
St. John Ambulance. (2021). Therapy Dog Program
St. John Ambulance. (2021). Become a Therapy Dog Volunteer
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, July 2015, pp.41-43.
About the Author
Gail Radtke CPDT is a retired correctional supervisor and former instructor of the Justice Institute of British Columbia, Canada. Gail has combined her passion for dogs and teaching and is a Family Paws Parent Education presenter and has recently completed her DipCBST. She is the owner and operator of Cedar Valley K9 in Campbell River, British Columbia, Canada.